It's Ball behind 2 chins

~ Robert Feldberg, North, 30/10/2005 ~

With appearances in New York by London stage stars so frequent as to be commonplace, it might seem we've already seen everything the United Kingdom has to offer.

But one of the most popular of all British musical performers has not - except for one isolated occasion 15 years ago - been on Broadway.

And, wouldn't you know it, now that matinee idol Michael Ball is finally starring in a big musical in New York, it will be in a distorting disguise.

"Count Fosco is a really evil, fat bastard," said Ball, laughing off his character in "The Woman in White."

To play the villain in Andrew Lloyd Webber's romantic-melodrama musical, based on Wilkie Collins' Victorian mystery novel, Ball spends two hours being made up before each performance. He puts on a "fat suit" (that's easy) and is given a prosthetic double chin (which is what takes up most of the time). "And I can't take it off [between shows] on matinee days," he added with a mock groan.

In his hilarious performance at the New York City Opera last month in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience," he played a pretentious poet in a long, gaudy wig and appropriate makeup.

So, while New York audiences are getting to see him, they aren't actually seeing the man who's been making British women swoon for years.

That Michael Ball was in plain sight, however, last week in his dressing room at the Marquis Theatre, before a rehearsal of "The Woman in White," which began previews Friday and opens Nov. 17.

With curly, light-brown hair; a boyishly handsome face - he even has dimples, for heaven's sake - warm smile and easygoing manner, the 43-year-old actor lacks nothing in the appeal department. And there's also that big, flexible tenor voice.

So, why hasn't he followed the lead of such other London musical stars as Michael Crawford and Hugh Jackman and established a beachhead here? "I've thought about it a lot, of course," he said. "But with making records, doing concerts, being on television and performing in the West End, I just haven't had the opportunity."

Ball actually is a frequent visitor to New York.

"I have a show on BBC Radio called 'Ball Over Broadway,'" he said. "They're nice enough to send me over here; I see the shows and do interviews."

With "The Woman in White," he continues a long association with Lloyd Webber. He's appeared in "The Phantom of the Opera" in London, and his appearance on Broadway in 1990 was in "Aspects of Love," the composer's attempt at an intimate romantic show.

Unfortunately, with the musical underwhelming New York audiences, neither Ball nor his co-stars got much attention.

His rare appearance in a character role, which began when he joined the already-running London production of "The Woman in White," was a response to a distress call, Ball said.

"I had seen the show and liked it very much. And then, about five weeks later, Michael Crawford [who was Fosco] became ill and had to leave.

"They had an immediate need, and they asked me if I'd step in as quickly as possible. It was the biggest compliment that they had faith in me to make that leap [to a character part].

"But I was also the guest host at that time on 'This Morning,' which is a two-hour live TV show something like Regis Philbin's show. So, for that first week, I would do the show at night and then get up at 6 a.m. to do the TV show. I was getting about two hours sleep a night."

Ball, who said he found the experience more exhilarating than exhausting, subsequently agreed to join the Broadway production of "Woman in White."

His debut with the City Opera coming so closely in time was, he said, a coincidence. "They've had success recently with British performers, Jeremy Irons and Elaine Paige, and they simply asked me if I was interested."

Ball, who'd just returned from a week in London, where he'd gone to promote the release of his 11th CD, "Music," a collection of pop songs ranging from "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to "Desperado" - "It opened No. 10 on the charts," he said happily - was full of enthusiasm for "Woman in White." The show is a kind of comeback effort for Lloyd Webber, who hasn't had a hit on Broadway since "Phantom," which opened in 1988.

"Andrew has written really beautiful melodies. He has a real love of the romantic era. If you like 'Phantom,' you'll like this music."

Ball also had glowing, almost fervent words for the show's book, which was adapted by Charlotte Jones. "It's a great yarn, completely engrossing" he said. "It has twists and is thrilling. It's the kind of show that should come with a warning: Do not reveal the ending!"

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